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North Korea tunes in to New York Philharmonic

The United States' oldest symphony orchestra played an unprecedented concert on Tuesday in hermit North Korea that both sides say they hope will bring a little harmony to relations between the bitter Cold War foes.

Music Director Lorin Maazel (C) reacts as he is handed flowers after conducting the New York Philharmonic during their concert at the Grand Theatre in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang February 26, 2008. (REUTERS/David Gray)

North Korea's solitary television station broadcast the whole concert live to a population taught to view all things foreign with deep suspicion -- especially if they come from the United States, officially their darkest enemy.

But any sign of the 60 years of enmity was kept well out of sight as the orchestra opened the performance with both national anthems -- North Korea's first.

"This will go a long way towards bettering ties and future exchanges," Yang Kwan-yong, who works in North Korea's music recording industry, told Reuters at the concert hall.

The concert has come as the impoverished communist state drags its feet over demands to hold to its side of an international disarmament deal and own up to everything it has been doing over the years to develop nuclear weapons.

"Please enjoy," conductor Lorin Maazel said in Korean to huge applause from the audience before the orchestra played George Gershwin's "An American in Paris".

The audience of top cadres, more used to music that praises North Korea's political system and its dynastic leadership, gave a standing ovation at the end of the more than 90-minute performance in the packed East Pyongyang Grand Theatre.

The flags of both countries stood on the stage.


"This is first time I have seen the American flag in North Korea," said one of the minders looking after the largest group of foreign journalists to ever visit the communist state.

But noticeably absent from the audience was North Korea's self-styled "Dear Leader", Kim Jong-il.

The concert closed with an arrangement of the "Arirang" folk song that is hugely popular on both sides of the heavily-armed border that has divided the Korean peninsula over half a century.

Executive director of the New York Philharmonic, Zarin Mehta, said officials from both sides hoped the biggest U.S. group to visit since the 1950-53 Korean War would help normalise relations between the long-time foes.

Discussions for the concert, at the invitation from the north, first emerged last year as significant progress was made in six-way nuclear negotiations among the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

Analysts say Washington sees this visit as akin to cultural overtures it made to other Cold War foes decades ago and which eventually helped to ease tension.

During the three-day visit, North Korea has opened its normally tightly shut doors to scores of foreign journalists, allowing them Internet access and almost completely unrestricted international phone lines -- unheard of in a country that imprisons people for unauthorised contact with the outside world.


Analysts said that North Korea sees the arrival of the orchestra as a diplomatic coup.

Its propaganda machine will almost certainly spin the visit as a mission from the United States to pay tribute to Kim Jong-il, head of the world's first communist dynasty.

The two countries have no diplomatic ties, are technically still at war and have troops staring each other down across the heavily fortified border that has divided North and South Korea for more than half a century.

The music selection was steeped in irony.

Gershwin's "An American in Paris", the famed piece about a foreigner discovering the "the city of lights", was played in an impoverished country that does not produce enough electricity to light its homes at night.

Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 "From the New World", highlights an immigrant's discovery of America's music. The theme may resonate strangely in a country that forbids most of its citizens from leaving and reportedly executes many of those caught escaping.

Energy-starved North Korea lit the streets of Pyongyang for the motorcade of buses carrying some 350 people from the orchestra, its entourage and media covering the event.

As the buses pulled away, a few street lights went out behind them. Through the rear-view mirror, one sign could still be seen, which read: "Crush the American imperialist aggressors".

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